What To Watch For In Game 5: Spurs @ Nuggets

-In the first four games of this series, San Antonio’s bench has struggled mightily. While all of the bench players are at least partially to blame, the player the Spurs most desperately need to have find his rhythm track is Rudy Gay. The Nuggets are blitzing and switching whenever the Spurs go to their bench, which usually results in Gay facing a mismatch against either a plodding bigman or an undersized guard. That’s typically the exact outcome that the Spurs want because Gay has been the best player on the team at exploiting mismatches all season long. However, that hasn’t been the case this series, as Gay has missed 20 of his last 24 shots from the field dating back to the third quarter of Game 1. If the Spurs are going to win Game 5, they need Gay to come alive and provide the bench with the focal point on offense they desperately need. 

-The reliance on Gay is nothing new for the 2018-19 Spurs. In games in which he has scored ten or fewer points, the Spurs were only 16-15 in the regular season. In games he scored more than ten points, the Spurs were 32-19. In this series, that pattern has held true: the Spurs are 2-0 when Gay scores more than ten points, 0-2 when he scores ten or fewer. With how this roster is constructed, Gay’s role of busting mismatches is not only vital, it’s essentially mandatory because no one else on the team is capable of filling that role.

-Prior to the start of the series, I pointed at San Antonio’s three-point shooting as being an area to watch, as the Spurs were the best three-point shooting team percentage-wise in the regular season and the Nuggets boasted the best defense against three-pointers percentage-wise. Thus far, the Nuggets are handily winning that battle of bests. The Spurs are only hitting six threes per game this series (down from 9.9 per game in the regular season) on 35.3% shooting (down from 39.2%). 

-How can the Spurs generate more open threes? Gay taking advantage of mismatches would help immensely, particularly since the success of the bench relies so heavily on made three-pointers (the Spurs led the league in bench three-pointers, despite what you hear about Pop not liking threes). LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan being more aggressive when facing single-coverage would also help, as the Nuggets would eventually send double-team help. Aldridge, especially, didn’t attack much in Game 4, which allowed the Nuggets to stay home on shooters.

-Another area of interest I pointed to prior to the start of the series was Denver being the best offensive rebounding team in the league and the Spurs being one of the best defensive rebounding teams. The hope was that the Spurs could slow the Nuggets on the offensive boards by playing Jakob Poeltl next to Aldridge more often. The good news so far in the series is that the Spurs have successfully stopped the Nuggets from feasting on offensive rebounds. In fact, Denver’s offensive rebounding percentage in the series is way, way down (below league average — last place among Western Conference teams in the playoffs). Surprisingly, the Spurs are actually pulling down more offensive boards than the Nuggets through four games. That said, things could change quickly if Pop decides to roll with smaller lineups in Game 5 or if Aldridge or Poeltl gets in foul trouble.

-Speaking of Poeltl, he’s had a really strong series so far. Just based on the eye-test, he’s more assertive and more active than he was during the regular season. He definitely looks like he belongs and doesn’t show any signs of being a postseason shrinking violet. Perhaps the best news of all: the offense has been elite with Poeltl on the court. The Spurs are scoring 118.6 points per 100 possessions when Poeltl is on the court, which is by far the best mark on the team (Derrick White is second at 113.9). The worry with pairing Poeltl and Aldridge in 2019 is the lack of spacing on the offensive end would mute the offensive attack, particularly in the playoffs. So far, that hasn’t happened. It’s actually been the opposite.

-The Spurs really need Poeltl to stay out of foul trouble going forward. It won’t be possible to stop Nikola Jokic but Poeltl has done a good job of guarding him out to the three-point line, cutting off driving lanes and contesting shots. The Spurs are also rebounding at a fantastic clip when Poeltl is on the court, which is no accident. 

-Honestly, I’m a bit worried about the adjustments Pop has in store for Game 5. In the past, we’ve seen Pop adjust too much in Game 5s in which the series is tied 2-2 (examples: dropping Danny Green from starter to out of the rotation against Thunder in 2012, inserting Matt Bonner into the starting lineup, putting Manu Ginobili into the starting lineup for the first time all season). I don’t think the Spurs need to do anything much different than they have been doing in this series. In fact, it can be successfully argued that the Spurs have outplayed the Nuggets thus far. What the Spurs need most is improved individual play — not wholesale changes by Pop. The gameplan is working. Don’t panic.

-The one natural adjustment I’d like to see is more minutes for the starters. Pop played Aldridge big minutes during the regular season so there’s no reason not to play him 40 minutes now. (DeRozan would be averaging near 40 minutes already if he didn’t get in foul trouble two minutes into Game 2 and didn’t get ejected in Game 4, so I think 40 minutes is a given heading into Game 5 for him). Pop appears to be playing Poeltl as many minutes as possible — if he hasn’t been in foul trouble, he’s been in the game. That needs to continue. The other player who needs a boost in minutes is Bryn Forbes. He’s been averaging right around 30 minutes but I’d like to see that increased to around 36 minutes, as he’s the biggest three-point threat right now and likely the team’s best perimeter defender outside of White (scary, I know).

-Should Pop increase White’s minutes? White has had an outstanding series. There’s no doubt about that. However, I don’t know if I could co-sign a plan for him to play much more than 32 or 33 minutes. This is a second-year guard who has suffered overuse injuries on both feet this season and who has said after games that he was exhausted on the court. With as bright as White’s future is and how he has already played way more minutes this season than he ever has in his basketball life, do you roll the dice and push his minutes up to 40? Personally, I wouldn’t. I’d keep him at 32 to 33 minutes, especially because the Spurs need him to be spry to close out a tight game late in the fourth quarter.

Patty Mills needs to show up in Game 5. He’s oscillated between bad and decent so far in the first round. Most importantly, he needs to space the court on offense by knocking down a couple three-pointers (he has one made three in the first four games) and be an energetic pest on defense (in other words, flop to draw a couple offensive fouls). Marco Belinelli has been right there with Gay in terms of being the most disappointing player on the team. He’s reminding us all why he had to be removed from the rotation back in 2014: terrible defense and dumb, momentum-halting shots. A hot shooting night from Belinelli would be appreciated, although I’d settle for him paying attention on defense and smart shot attempts.

-If Pop is fed up with Belinelli like it’s 2014 all over again, there’s an outside chance he could turn to Lonnie Walker IV to try to get more athleticism on the court. Remember, Pop did something similar with a rookie George Hill back in 2009, when Hill went from out of the rotation to a main cog in the first round against the Mavericks. I think it’s more likely that DeRozan and Forbes will simply play extended minutes but if Belinelli remains a liability, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see Walker hit the floor. And while he wasn’t overly impressive in the G-League (I wouldn’t say he was disappointing but nothing he did on that level made it look like he was ready for NBA action) and is probably too green to be more than a live body, he’s a player who could at least hang with Denver’s athletes.

LJ Ellis